Salt Lake City appeals inland port lawsuit to Utah Supreme Court

The Salt Lake City Attorney’s Office is formally contesting the ruling last month of a 3rd District judge that the state’s takeover of a large chunk of land in Salt Lake City’s northwest side did not run afoul of the Utah Constitution, as the city had argued.

At the heart of the case is the question of who should have control over land use and tax decisions over some 16,000 acres of land slated to become a massive import and export trading hub for international cargo.

“This case and how it’s decided will have a permanent impact on our city, and on cities throughout Utah,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in a tweet announcing the move on Wednesday. “It’s our responsibility to get clarity from a higher court.”

The decision from Judge James Blanch left the state in charge of the inland port, despite arguments from the city during a hearing in November that the state’s takeover of its land through legislation in 2018 had represented an illegal land grab.

The state, in turn, had pushed back on claims that the port authority board — an 11-member body created to oversee development of private land in the project area — is a special commission and that it interferes with municipal funds or land to conduct city functions. Attorneys also contended that the project would serve a statewide rather than municipal function and would therefore be best overseen by a state body.

The 3rd District decision in favor of the state was seen as a major win in advancing a project that’s been dogged in recent months by legal uncertainty, public opposition and protests amid concerns the development would increase emissions and worsen the state’s already poor air quality.

For Salt Lake City leaders and the Utah League of Cities and Towns, that outcome was less favorable, setting a standard for local control and the division of state and municipal powers that they fear could echo beyond Salt Lake City Hall.

“Everything about the inland port is setting a major precedent, and the state’s actions to create the inland port authority and usurp what we believe are constitutionally protected [powers] is unprecedented,” Mendenhall told reporters at the time of the ruling.

But Wednesday’s appeal will likely exacerbate challenges for the port board as it attempts to get the project off the ground. The Governor’s Office of Economic Development said in its legal briefs that it was currently working on negotiations with a number of “very prominent companies” interested in making “substantial investments” within the port project area.

In a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Jack Hedge, the executive director of the Utah Inland Port Authority noted that legal challenges generally pose an obstacle for development.

“Uncertainty is always a bad thing and I think uncertainty creates issues, creates questions, and capital and investment and expansion like to go where the more certainty the better,” he said. “So obviously we’re pleased with the outcome [in the lower court]. But where it goes forward, to me that’s between the state and the city and what they decide to do going forward. We’re focused on the strategic plan and Utah’s place in the global supply chain.”

The Utah Attorney General’s Office, which is named as a defendant in the suit along with Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah Inland Port Authority Board, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the appeal.